In his annual address to the parliament, on December 1, President Vladimir Putin praised the Russian people for defying economic hardships, maintaining “patriotic” (i.e.: pro-Kremlin and pro-Putin) national unity, and for standing up to Western pressure. Putin sounded confident and sometimes triumphant: In Syria the Russian military has decimated “the terrorists” and proven it can effectively operate in far-off lands. Russia is not seeking out fights and is not an enemy of the West, according to Putin, but will stringently defend its interests and possessions. The Russian head of state expressed cautious optimism about rebuilding relations with the incoming Donald Trump administration in Washington “to work together to solve world problems and fight terrorists—the true enemies” (Kremlin.ru, December 1).
During the acrimonious presidential campaign in the United States, Moscow clearly rooted for Trump (see EDM, October 24), but does not seem quite as enthusiastic following the US billionaire businessman’s unexpected victory. Putin is known to dislike large, loud and dominating men; building any personal chemistry with Trump, therefore, could be problematic. At the same time, powerful groups in Moscow—the military and defense industry as well as the security and intelligence communities—are fighting to preserve their budgets at a time of acute financial austerity. These groups have a vested interest in maintaining a heightened level of confrontation with the US (see EDM, November 3). Similar opposition will surely crop up in the US foreign and defense establishment to stop moves that may be seen as appeasing Putin. Obstacles are high on all sides, thus making serious detente or “reset” between Trump and Putin extremely problematic.
Moscow also does not seem particularly open to modifying its policies and actions in Syria. The Syrian opposition’s resistance seems to be crumbling in Aleppo as Shia militias and President Bashar al-Assad’s loyalists continue to storm neighborhood after neighborhood in this besieged city. A distinct aura of euphoria can be observed in Moscow as victory in the more than 14-month-old Russian military campaign in Syria to prop up the beleaguered al-Assad regime looks close at hand. The Kremlin press service seldom reports anything about the closed-door proceedings of Putin’s security-focused inner cabinet—the permanent members of Russia’s Security Council. But on November 28, it reported that such a meeting in the Kremlin discussed first of all “the advance of the Syrian army in eastern Aleppo and the liberation of significant neighborhoods from terrorists” (Kremlin.ru, November 28). Russian diplomats have been publicly ridiculing as ill-timed and hopeless attempts by United Nations officials and US Secretary of State John Kerry to desperately find some formula to stop the carnage in Aleppo, declare a ceasefire, and bring in emergency relief (Interfax, November 28). According to Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vitaliy Churkin, “There is no such thing as a moderate Syrian opposition—they are all terrorists” (Militarynews.ru, November 30).
No signs currently exist of Moscow’s willingness to moderate its position on the conflict with Ukraine after Trump’s election. According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) observer mission, the present fighting in the Donbas separatist region of eastern Ukraine is worse than ever, while obligations to disengage forces from the front are faltering (Ukrinform.ru, November 25). No progress was made at this week’s (November 29) meeting in Minsk of foreign ministers of the so-called Normandy format group (Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France) to discuss pacifying Donbas (Rian.com.ua, November 29). Meanwhile, the Ukrainian air defense forces have begun military exercises in Kherson oblast (adjacent to Crimea). The Ukrainian detachments are practicing firing anti-aircraft missiles to intercept targets mimicking attacking cruise missiles. The Ukrainian missiles were launched from land, but the intercepts happened over international waters in the Black Sea, east of Crimea. The Ukrainians have declared a temporary no-fly zone for December 1–2 to prevent accidents. In response, the Russian military deployed warships west of Crimea and handed its Ukrainian counterparts a diplomatic note, warning it would shoot down the Ukrainian missiles (a militarily senseless and impractical proposal) and also threatening to attack and destroy the Ukrainian anti-aircraft missile launchers on Ukrainian territory (Vedomosti, December 1). Attacking Ukrainian anti-aircraft installations with long-range radar-homing missiles is feasible, but it would be an unambiguous sign that the two countries are at war.
The Kremlin is not likely to offer a new Trump administration any easy deals for ensuring fruitful bilateral cooperation. Washington would likely be asked to accept Moscow’s free hand to use force and coercion in Syria, Ukraine and in other parts of Eurasia that Russia might consider within its sphere of influence. Furthermore, as a precondition for actually beginning to even consider any possible “new” relations, Moscow might demand a total US military withdrawal of men and military equipment from Central-Eastern European member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and a unilateral repeal of anti-Russian sanctions. The possible election of powerful Eurosceptic pro-Russian nationalists in France and other European NATO countries has prompted Putin to call for a new model of “Greater Eurasian Partnership”—an integration with EU member states that seemingly excludes and isolates the US (Kremlin.ru, December 1). Would the Trump administration be happy with that?
Putin boasted the recession in Russia is at an end, but it seems to be followed by stagnation. The only two parts of the Russian economy that have been growing in 2016 are agriculture (there was a bumper harvest) and the defense industry, which registered a growth of 10 percent. The defense industry expansion is, of course, the result of unprecedented defense spending of up to 6 percent of GDP in 2016. Putin called on the Russian defense industry to begin mass-producing civilian goods—which most likely will lead mostly to senseless waste. Putin called on the government to prepare by next May a comprehensive plan of economic growth. He sounded annoyed and demanded that this plan must not be “abstract,” but meticulously detailed in every aspect (Kremlin.ru, December 1).
While Russia’s activist foreign and defense policies are apparently succeeding, Putin does not seem to have a clue as to how to kick-start economic growth. As during the Cold War, the Russian economy is the Kremlin’s “Achilles heel.” Putin has, time and again, praised the endurance and unity of the Russian people, but any endurance has limits.